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Australia and China

Keynote Address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, Leader of the Australian Delegation, to the 2012 Australia China Forum, Beijing, 14 November 2012

Excellencies, Delegates to the Australia China Forum, Former Ambassadors to Australia and other distinguished guests.

Thank you Ambassador Li Zhaoxing – Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress, Honorary President of the Chinese People’s Institute for Foreign Members, old friend and colleague, fellow member of that very exclusive club of former Foreign Ministers, and Leader of the Chinese delegation to this Forum – for your thoughtful and gracious welcoming address, and for hosting our delegation at this historic time both in China’s history and in the history of our bilateral relationship.

It is a great pleasure for all of us in the Australian delegation to this Forum to be back here in Beijing.  It is a particular pleasure for me personally to have this opportunity to renew old friendships, not least with so many former ambassadors to Australia – and to be reminded again about just how extraordinary has been the transformation of China since I made my first visit to this country 36 years ago, in 1976, the last tumultuous year of the Cultural Revolution.

There are a number of factors which make the timing of this second Australia China Forum auspicious. First, it is an historic time to be here in the capital, with China’s new leadership about to be announced tomorrow.

With the opening of China to the world, record economic growth, and standards of living that were unimaginable a generation ago, what the Chinese people have been able to achieve over the past few decades has set a very high bar for China’s new leaders.  National sentiment and national pride in this record are very strong, and the Chinese people’s expectations of its new leaders understandably will be high in this respect. 

But so too are the hopes and expectations of the rest of the world.  We look forward with great anticipation to the new leadership not only taking forward China’s development to further new heights, but at the same time continuing its commitment to global institutions and maintaining a close cooperative engagement with the wider international community.

The second auspicious factor in our meeting is that this Forum occurs as we mark 40 years of diplomatic relations between Australia and China. While Australia is not the only country celebrating this anniversary this year, there can be few others where the impact of opening up our bilateral relations has been so great. Three snapshots make the point:

In 1972, two-way trade between our countries was less than A$100 million in 1972: now it is more than A$125 billion.
In 1972, Chinese visitors to Australia were fewer than 500: last year we had the pleasure of welcoming over 540,000.  Australian visitors to China 40 years ago were also fewer than 500: there were more than 330,000 in 2011.
And in 1972 we are not aware of any Chinese students studying in Australia, nor of any Australian students studying in China. Last year over 90,000 Chinese students enrolled in courses in Australia.

With China now our largest trading partner, with the people to people contacts between us so strong, (and, incidentally, with Chinese now the second most spoken language in Australian homes after English), this bilateral relationship is obviously hugely significant to us.

I am glad to hear from Ambassador Li that the Australia-China relationship is also seen as a particularly significant bilateral one for you. While our population size will never rank us among the world’s major powers, we are the 12th biggest economy in the world, the 6th biggest by landmass with the 3rd largest maritime zone, and are one of your top 10 trading partners, supplying over 40 per cent of your iron ore imports as well as other major natural resources.

Beyond that we have a long record as an actively and creatively engaged middle power in regional and global affairs, and are looking forward in that respect to continuing to work with you not only in the G20 and major regional forums, but also now for the next two years in the UN Security Council.

This year’s Australia China Forum provides us with an opportunity to celebrate this year’s anniversary; to consider the foundations of the relationship built over the past 40 years; and to consider where it could and should go over the next 40 years.

Another factor that makes the timing of this year’s forum so pertinent is that it coincides with the recent release by the Australian Prime Minister of the White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century. While this policy blueprint is about Australia’s future engagement with Asia as a whole, there is, and will be, no country more central or important to us in that engagement than China.

The White Paper aims to be a roadmap for Australia to navigate the period of economic and social change ahead, outlining a set of national objectives and pathways for the period through to 2025. 

Its key message is that Australia must do more to build the capabilities that will help us succeed in the Asian Century. The most important of these is to invest in the Australian people through education and skills to drive improved productivity performance.

The Paper makes clear that Australia’s commercial engagement in the region will be most successful if highly innovative, competitive Australian firms and institutions develop collaborative relationships with others in the region.

A further central message of the Paper is that Australia needs to broaden and deepen its relationships across the region at every level, with links that are social and cultural as much as political and economic. The objective is to have many more Australians having a deeper understanding of what is happening in Asia, and more of our neighbours in the region knowing us better than they do today.

The remaining big theme of the Paper is to address – although not in great detail, because  the primary focus is on economic issues – the need for sustainable security in our region.  It argues that everyone’s interests would be best served by cooperative trust building, bilaterally and through existing regional mechanisms, to consolidate a rules-based regional and global order.

May I make it clear, as Australian ministers have done on many occasions, that while we have been a longstanding ally of the United States – a relationship forged in the context of the threat that we, like China, faced from Japan in World War II – we seek to maintain positive and mutually supportive bilateral relationships with both the U.S. and China. While these relationships have different dynamics and histories, both are strong and vibrant, and the last place in which we want to find ourselves is some zero sum game that forces us to choose between the two.

Australia’s consistent position has been that containment of a rising China is neither desirable nor viable. It’s nonsense. We have maintained a clear position that a prosperous China, actively and constructively engaged in regional and global affairs, is good for Australia, the region and the world.

By stimulating awareness and debate within Australia on all these issues, the White Paper is playing a useful role in ensuring Australia continues to engage with Asia as it evolves and grows. I hope that as we explore in our discussions tomorrow all facets of our bilateral relationship, we can have a frank exchange on the relevance of the White Paper’s objectives and whether they are achievable. 

Australia has great aspirations for this ‘one and a half track’ Forum, bringing together in a ‘Chatham House rules’ environment – so we can speak freely to each other without fear of public attribution – both senior officials and senior non-governmental figures from both sides. We value our relationship with China and are keen to see it strengthen.  Our hope is that the Forum will provide a valuable opportunity to freely explore all aspects of the relationship between our two countries. We hope to offer imaginative proposals for strengthening the relationship into the future and equally invite imaginative proposals from Chinese delegates.

We hope that there will be a frank and honest discussion of those aspects of the relationship that are already strong, as well as those aspects of it that have caused difficulties in the past, or may need some remedial attention.

I have written elsewhere that with a mindset of mutual respect, and with the right institutional machinery in place, there is plenty of scope for muscular bilateral and multilateral debate between us, and for the effective accommodation of quite different interests and worldviews.

This Forum provides us with an important element of the necessary institutional machinery, and a vehicle for having some of that necessary vibrant debate.  We thank you again for hosting this meeting, and very much look forward to our discussions tomorrow.